Attention is a concept we all understand, throughout our waking life we distribute our resources attending to various signs, smells, noises and more. Attention has an effect on our everyday experience because what we perceive and internalise relies on what we attend. Studying attention has opened my eyes to how much we can miss in our environment, from distant sounds to events unfolding in front of our eyes. As Kahneman (1973) proposed, attention is a resource, we must learn to use it effectively to interact with and understand our world. Whilst the ability to re-play scenarios and past experiences in our mind along with conceptualising our experience is arguably what makes us intelligent and highly adaptive, we must also recognise that our ability to just pay attention to our present experience is as useful in attempting to better our mind. In the precious few weeks we have left of our degree, it seems appropriate to round up all of my different aspects of attention in relation to assignment writing.
When it comes to blog writing or the dreaded dissertation, attention must be focussed on task. Divided attention, whilst helpful for tasks such as driving and cooking is perhaps not appropriate for assignment writing. I stopped listening to music whilst writing to be fully immersed in my work, congruent with the theory that attention is a resource, our processing is limited and best focused on the single task at hand. In mindfulness we recognise that our ability to do multiple tasks at once can hinder the quality of our work; perhaps we are bothered by an unpleasant social situation or lecture in our near future that plagues our mind and leaves us dreading every minute we experience prior to event, our ability to focus on work or our lunch for instance will be hampered. As James (1890) said, we must grasp one train of thought and withdraw from others; forget about problems we can’t solve with our mind (e.g. how unpleasant will tomorrow’s lecture be) and focus on the task at hand (e.g. how can I truly synthesise my topic of attention into one blog).
Much of my focus, even before starting the topic of attention, was focussed on the benefits that can be reaped from incorporating mindfulness into the education system. My argument for this change was based on the lack of instruction on focussing ones mind on task in schools; without discipline and an authoritarian style of teaching from an early age, I believe all children would run riot in schools. Firstly, schools should teach children methods of focussing, boredom affects us all and mindfulness can be effective in this (Malinowski, 2013). Secondly, there should be a focus on teaching self-regulation; punishments for students only teach them how to be controlled and do not cultivate the self-discipline needed once in the working or undergraduate environment; this also applies to children with ADHD that are so often controlled with contingency management (DuPaul & Eckert, 1997). Thirdly, emotions and our reactions to our peers and everyday stressors are not addressed in school; emotional regulation (especially in childhood) is critical for teamwork and daily interactions among students and teachers. I think I have shown logic and evidence for using mindfulness to address these issues; Napoli, Krech and Holley (2005) used a 24-week mindfulness program for early elementary students to combat stress and the anxiety, violence and depression that can ensue.
Students are increasingly put under more pressure to succeed; exams and assignments can become serious stressors, especially when there are great expectations and/or competition. A little stress is good for us, but every year there are multiple suicides committed by young students over exam stress. Anxiety, depression and substance abuse can be prevalent among stressed students, especially at undergraduate level. I have argued that whilst there are many pharmacological fixers on the market for depression, there is an overreliance on such medication and bad practice relating to use with children. Stress eats away at the sufferer, consuming attentional resources; academic performance is inevitably altered by the presence of stress, depression and anxiety. In schools there is are multiple factors all interacting; social learning (interactions with other pupils and teachers), competition, bullying (perpetrators having a high prevalence of severe depression), threat exaggeration for those being bullied or exhibiting symptoms of depression (Vasey, Daleiden, Williams and Brown, 1995) and those with impaired learning or attention. These factors lead to school becoming a complex environment where the aim should not only be to educate and better knowledge of the students, but to make them feel valued and discover their talents.
ADHD is another good example of the overreliance on medication and simple contingency management for problematic behaviour. One problem faced by those who care for sufferers is compliance; Singh et al (2010) explored the use of a mindfulness course for such a population. They found significantly more satisfying interactions for parents of ADHD children after the course; whether this is due to a change in perception of the parents, the behaviour of the child or a combination, it shows the value of mindfulness in a variety of areas. For those of us not suffering from an attention disorder, habits such as rumination (replaying negative thoughts, focused attention on source of distress) can have disastrous effects on our concentration. Indeed Semple, Reid and Miller (2005) found anxiety to be a major factor in exam performance and that a mindfulness course could significantly reduce exam anxiety to reduce the impact on performance.
One of the main aims of mindfulness is sharpening the skill of attention, but what about other techniques or even drugs for enhancing attention. Alec wrote a detailed blog and presentation on the use of ADHD drugs and other attention changing substances in academia, it is not surprising that on the one hand we have individuals abusing substances because of academic stress and those using drugs to boost performance. I have praised the value of music in education in a couple of my blogs and provided some literature to show it has a positive effect of neuroplasticity (Rosenkranz, Williamon & Rothwell, 2007), Jan-David made an excellent point when suggesting the integration of mindfulness with art such as music and painting; making mindfulness accessible to everyone is of utmost importance when considering implementation in education. Strait and Kraus (2011) reinforced the idea of using musical training for individuals with attention problems as it facilitates sustaining auditory attention.
Cho et al (2002a) explored the use of biofeedback using EEG in virtual environments for individuals with attention problems; the benefit of biofeedback is the ability for the individual to take control, virtual reality is supposedly more immersive for these subjects and may be more accessible to children of the video game generation. Many of the alternatives to mindfulness are either costly, hard to implement or not accessible to all; as I have argued through my blog the benefits of mindfulness are wide (motivation, emotion and attention) and yet easy to incorporate into the classroom setting. Bosse and Valdois (2009) explored how attention span can have a direct influence on reading ability; learning is hampered when, say, a child lacks the attention needed for reading letters to form words. Binder, Haughton and Van Eyk (1990) created bespoke learning environments to suit specific needs of certain children. They found that tailoring education to the student’s pace was effective in keeping the student engaged and advancing through material.
Applying the mind is not easy, before studying mindfulness I would frequently begrudge myself for not being able to write an assignment or focus on a program for a length of time. Conceptualising attention as a skill and something that requires practice to maintain and work effectively is logical and possibly a revelation to some. Personally, I have found my attention much easier to focus since starting the eight-week mindfulness course this semester. The practice offers many benefits that are all useful in everyday life and especially in education, where things can get stressful, there is mass socialising and the quality of performance can have a lasting impact. Attention as a subject is wholly relevant to everyone; it impacts our perception and our interaction with individuals and the environment, it can be fleeting or it can flourish to create amazing works. Mindfulness is deeply connected with attention and I believe I have shown enough evidence to justify using it in education to better the next generation, not only in their performance and emotional regulation but consequently in their quality of life. This is not say those outside of education cannot benefit; the brain is plastic and we can all learn new things.
Just pay attention.
Binder, C, V., Haughton, E., & Van Eyk, D. (1990). Increasing endurance by building fluency; Precision teaching attention span. Teaching exceptional children, 22(3), 24-27.
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Cho, B. H., Ku, J., Jang, D. P., Kim, S., Lee, Y. H., Kim, I. Y. (2002a). Attention Enhancement System using Virtual Reality and EEG Biofeedback. IEEE Virtual Reality 1087-8270/02
DuPaul, G. J., Eckert, T. L. (1997) The Effects of School-Based Interventions for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Meta-Analysis. School Psychology Review, 26, 5-27
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Rosenkranz, K., Williamon, A. & Rothwell, J. C. (2007) Motorcortical excitability and synaptic plasticity is enhanced in professional musicians. J. Neurosci. 27, 5200–5206.
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Singh, N, N., Singh, A, N., Lancioni, G, N., Singh, J., Winton, A, S, W. & Adkins, A, D. (2010) Mindfulness Training for Parents and Their Children With ADHD Increases the Children’s Compliance. J Child Fam Stud 19:157–166 DOI 10.1007/s10826-009-9272-z
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Vasey, M, W., Daleiden, E, L., Williams, L, L. & Brown, L, M. (1995). Biased Attention in Childhood Anxiety Disorders: A Preliminary Study. Journal of Abnorrnal Child Psychology, Vol. 23, No. 2.